Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative, information technology, and innovation.

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November 11th, 2009

Two Winning Economic Stimulus Projects


As the Government of Canada rolls out its Economic Action Plan, I have two projects that, as far as I can tell, are not under consideration for funding. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve visited both several times with my children, and we’ve talked about how to improve these two museums.

The Canadian Air and Space Museum ( is on the site of the former Downsview airport in suburban Toronto. The museum is smaller than the Canadian Aviation Museum in Ottawa, but offers a different perspective, focusing its attention on the aircraft manufacturers, particularly De Havilland and A. V. Roe, which were both located in Toronto. It contains the only full-size replica of the Avro Arrow as well as a Canadian-built World War II Lancaster bomber that a group of dedicated amateur machinists is laboriously refurbishing.

The museum is attempting to raise $2 million in funds for a major expansion to highlight the role of the different manufacturers. The website contains a pitch from actor Harrison Ford, proclaiming the virtues of Canadian designed and manufactured aircraft, such as the Twin Otter.

I would have thought supporting the museum would readily appeal to the Harper government. It’s in multicultural northwest Toronto, an area where the Conservatives would like to make inroads. It would send messages about government support for manufacturing and for Canada’s armed forces. Yes, the Avro Arrow exhibit criticizes John Diefenbaker, the PM who decided to kill the Arrow, but I would hardly think the current-day Conservative Party – less than a decade old – considers itself accountable for Dief’s decisions half-a-century ago.

The second project is the Canadian Automotive Museum, which occupies a 25,000 square foot former dealership in an aging section of downtown Oshawa. The Museum has a superb collection of vintage cars going back to the 1910′s, with a particular emphasis on those manufactured in Canada.

The building is too small so the collection is very crowded. It is also in poor shape, for example the heating is insufficient for it to be comfortable in the winter. If the museum were in better shape, or in a better location, it could display its collection in the context of the history of Canadian automobile manufacturing, and launch a discussion about the economic, social, and environmental impacts of the automobile.

Developing this museum would also appear to be a no-brainer. The local MP is Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. The museum is about a vital part of Canada’s industrial heritage, which would appeal to the government’s values. So why, in this case as well, isn’t funding from the Economic Action Plan available? Isn’t the museum’s board knocking on the door of their powerful local MP? If they are, why isn’t that MP speaking up for his constituents?

Both these museums are about important chapters in our industrial heritage, and spending stimulus money on them would be a great idea. I hope it happens.

November 5th, 2009

The Master of Motivation


With the sequel to Wall Street currently in production, I want to look back at one of the most memorable scenes in the original. Not the famous “greed is good” speech, but rather a scene early in the movie (33 minutes in, chapter 7 on DVD) in which corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) convinces his prot

October 29th, 2009

Update on the Home Front


As we head up to Halloween weekend, here’s an update on the home front. Our older son, who has become interested in men’s fashion, is going as a magician, so that, for the first time, he can wear a top hat and tails. And our younger son, who has developed a deep interest in baseball this summer, is going as a New York Yankee, wearing number Derek Jeter’s number 2.

We’ll pick up some pumpkins after school Friday, carve them Saturday afternoon (following fencing class and a birthday party earlier in the day), and go trick-or-treating in the neighbourhood on Saturday evening (knowing from experience which streets are best), then watch some of the World Series game, and finally collapse into unconsciousness. A busy, and hopefully memorable, day will be had by all.

As the weather cools off, we are developing new ways to have physical activity indoors and my younger son and I have come up with a version of indoor baseball, with certain characteristics of squash. In a basement room 18 feet by 11 feet we set up a diamond going lengthwise. We use a foam rubber ball, which the hitter whacks and usually ricochets off one or more walls. The batter is out if he gets three strikes, if the pitcher catches the ball on the fly, or if the pitcher tags him out on the basepaths. Only home runs count, i.e. hits aren’t cumulative.

There is an open door on the third base line. My son, who is right handed, has developed great skill at hitting the ball out of the doorway, which is a home run. I’m left handed, so find it impossible to do that. We both have developed facility at the fielding side of the game — quickly seizing the ball as it bounces around the room — and holding the hitter to something less than a homerun, as well as the base running side of the game — taking as many bases as we can without getting tagged.

We don’t have an open door on the first base line, so my son has an advantage over me. I suppose we could equalize things by closing the door, but I’m happy to see him develop his skill at pulling the ball, i.e. hitting it down the third base line into left field. We both play as competitively as we can, so his advantage is a result of the structure of the field, rather than because dad isn’t trying hard.

It’s interesting that the game has evolved as we’ve played it, and we’ve worked up a set of rules that both of us understand and try to exploit. We’ll see how it evolves during the winter.

I’ll be back to narrative next week.

October 15th, 2009

Charlie Wilson


After seeing the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, I took the time this week to read George Crile’s 535 page history by the same title – the book from which the movie was adapted. The book was eminently readable and entirely enjoyable, though the story that emerged was very complex, incorporating quite a few subplots. The question that always comes to mind after such an exercise is what value the book added to the narrative in the film or, put otherwise, what was lost in the film’s necessarily simpler version of the narrative.

Let’s put aside the subplots and concentrate on the main plot of the movie, namely the co-operation between Charlie Wilson, a rogue congressman, and Gust Avrakotos, a rogue member of the US Clandestine Service (the elite of the CIA). Together, they orchestrated massive covert American support for the Afghan mujahedeen who ultimately defeated the Soviets.

The book did two things more effectively than the movie. First, it provided more comprehensive back-stories about both Wilson and Avrakotos. Both men had intrinsically fascinating back-stories. Second, working from Wilson’s point of view regarding Congress and Abrakotos’s regarding the CIA, it painted detailed portraits of the organizational culture and incentive systems in both institutions.

In Wilson’s case, we learn about his relationship with the Democratic leadership, in particular then Speaker Tim O’Neill, and how he was able to accumulate and trade personal capital to achieve his policy objectives. In Avrakotos’s case, we learn how he came up through the ranks in the CIA and, despite his profound difference in background with the WASP private school culture, he was able to achieve great things. In both cases, the book tells us more than the movie about their personal backgrounds, Wilson as a military man who combined virtually unshakeable sex and alcohol addictions with Churchillian idealism, and Avrakotos as a Greek-American with an ambition for public service.

The big difference between books and movies is that books tell and movies show. The movie didn’t have the capacity to go deeply into Wilson’s and Avrakotos’s back-stories. It is the responsibility of the actor to read and contemplate the back-story, immerse himself in the characters (as is done in method acting), and then through all the different aspects of his presentation (voice, facial expressions, gestures, etc.) make us understand, in a profound way, the individual he is portraying. And, after having now read the book, I stick to what I said in my previous post. Philip Seymour Hoffman got Gust Avrakotos spot-on and Tom Hanks missed in his portrayal of Charlie Wilson.

I come away from the book knowing more about Afghan and Pakistani politics, Congressional decision-making, and the CIA’s organizational culture, three disparate but intrinsically interesting bodies of knowledge. And I also come away with a better appreciation of where the movie succeeded and where it failed.

October 8th, 2009

Should we Fight in Charlie Wilson


Always searching for new material for my narratives courses, I just viewed the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War. The film was directed by Mike Nichols with a screenplay by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by George Crile. While the movie got great reviews from top critics including Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli, I’m not convinced that I want to use it.

The story, in brief, involves Charlie Wilson, a Democratic Congressman from Texas, who revels in the opportunities for personal vice (sex, booze, and cocaine) provided by his political celebrity. Indeed the movie begins with him in a Las Vegas hot-tub, snorting with two strippers. Good-time Charlie, as he was called, also recruited an entirely female office staff, with attractiveness and immodesty essential criteria. With a supportive district, Charlie was at liberty to follow his ideological interests, one of which became the cause of the Afghan mujahedeen who were struggling against the Soviet Union in the Eighties. Charlie was able to work the system – in particular the lack of public oversight for CIA spending – to dramatically increase US military aid to the mujahedeen, in particular to enable them to buy Russian anti-aircraft weapons, funneled through Israel and Pakistan. This increase in their military capability enabled them to drive the Soviets out, and contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union. Wilson had the help of Joanne Herring, a right wing Houston socialite with political connections, and Gust Avrakotos, a rouge CIA agent.

The movie, produced by Jeffrey Skoll’s Participant Productions, has its trademark “feel good” narrative arc, with the reason for feeling good that the evil Russkies, who bombed defenseless villagers and deliberately killed Afghan children, were ultimately defeated. But the movie ends with the bitter irony that, despite all the money Charlie was able to find to support mujahedeen resistance, he couldn’t convince his colleagues to provide any funding for reconstruction after the war. The additional back-story, not touched upon in the movie, is that the mujahedeen ultimately evolved into the Taliban.

Charlie Wilson was an unusual politician. He was a mixture of libertine and zealot, able to shift effortless from personal decadence to political machinations, and to succeed at both. In that, he resembles Jack Kennedy. (Bill Clinton too had that skill but in a time less likely to cut politicians slack for their peccadilloes he got caught). In a previous generation, the obvious actor to portray Wilson would have been Sean Connery who, as James Bond, could shift effortless between decadence and espionage. Tom Hanks was, in part, miscast: he certainly fits the political zealot side of Charlie Wilson, but the decadent side is against his type.

The movie should have downplayed the Participant Productions standard “stand up and cheer for the good guy” narrative (for example, Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck and Josie Ames in North Country) and dwelt more on the unintended consequences of Wilson’s success at providing covert American support for the mujahedeen.

The reviewers appreciated the movie’s fast pace and humor, and particularly liked Philip Seymour Hoffman as the rogue CIA agent. I didn’t care for a narrative that inadequately addressed the situation that evolved after Charlie Wilson’s original action and that didn’t give appropriate attention to the paradoxes and unintended consequences of his political zealotry.